Speaking with Lily Tuck About Autofiction, Narrative

By S. Kirk WalshOctober 8, 2015

Speaking with Lily Tuck About Autofiction, Narrative

FOR THE PAST 25 YEARS, Lily Tuck has exhibited her versatility as a novelist, a short story writer, and an essayist. Her wide variety of work is characterized by an elegant economy of language, subtle emotional excavation of her characters, and a sentence-to-sentence precision that nonetheless propels her lyrical narratives forward. A winner of the National Book Award for her historical novel, The News from Paraguay, Tuck has unquestionably become one of the contemporary masters of elliptical, provocative prose. 

With The Double Life of Liliane, her ninth book, Tuck combines her talents and returns to playing with form. In the literary spirit of W.G. Sebald, Karl Ove Knausgård, and Rachel Cusk, Tuck tells a fictionalized version of her own coming-of-age story: Liliane is the only child of European parents who flee from Nazi-occupied Paris to Peru. After the war, their fraying marriage completely comes undone, and Liliane has no choice but to move between her mother’s apartment on New York City’s Upper East Side and her father’s sparsely furnished flat in Rome. In between accounts of her childhood and adolescence, the author explores the compelling histories of both sides of her family, which range from Mary, Queen of Scots, to an early Mexican adventurer. Like in Sebald’s books, a series of black-and-white photographs are interspersed throughout the text without captions. Besides adding a visual dimension to the text, the photos bring an additional layer of mystery to the novel. 

As with Tuck’s other books, the narrative voice here performs a delicate balance between immediacy and remoteness. The story is personal, of course, but by the end, we sit at an intellectual remove from the text itself. We accompany Tuck to a literary theory class at Harvard taught by Paul de Man. Here, we witness the scholarly spark that kindled the beginning of Tuck’s impressive career. 

Recently, I spoke with Tuck about The Double Life of Liliane, the burgeoning genre of autofiction, how this new book differs from her earlier works, her studies with Gordon Lish, and what advice she might have for young writers.


S. KIRK WALSH: When did you decide to write this novel?

LILY TUCK: I am not sure exactly when I decided to write this novel, but for some time, I wanted to write about my family and record their experiences, especially my father’s during World War II, for my children. My children’s family history is heavily weighted on their father’s side and I wanted them to know more about mine — even if fictionalized. And at the risk of sounding pretentious, I wanted to honor my family’s accomplishments and have them remembered.

Did you ever consider writing a memoir? Or was there a particular moment when it crossed over into fiction for you?

I think that no matter what I write — even a recipe — it turns into fiction or at least part fiction.

Did you do a lot of research for this novel? How was the research process different with this book compared to, say, The News from Paraguay?

Yes, I had to do a lot of research — but I like doing research. Doing research is easy, much easier than the actual writing. And yes, also, I had journals that both my father and great-grandfather kept which were very useful and from which I quote. As for how the research process for The Double Life of Liliane differed from that of The News from Paraguay, they, in fact, were remarkably similar. I think the quote from the author’s note in The News from Paraguay shows that: “What then, the reader may wonder, is fact and what is fiction?” My rule of thumb is that whatever seems most improbable is probably true. Also, I would like to quote a friend who cautions his readers with these words: “Nouns always trump adjectives, and in the phrase ‘historical fiction’ it is important to remember which of the two words is which.” I think this last statement applies to autobiographical fiction as well.

How would you define “autofiction”?

Autobiography that is partly imagined.

With the popularity of Karl Ove Knausgård and Edward St. Aubyn, how do you think the recent trend of autofiction is informing contemporary fiction, or has the blurring of fiction and fact always existed with Proust and other earlier writers?

In his famous passage concerning the incident of the madeleine, Proust introduced his readers to the theory of “involuntary memory,” a means for him to recapture past time, the theme of his remarkable six volumes. I think memory, per se, plays less of a role in today’s fiction. Instead, writers like Knausgård (my favorite), Jeanette Winterson, Ben Lerner, Geoff Dyer, and David Foster Wallace — to name just a few — are combining the methods of both the essay and the writer’s immediate subjective and ordinary experience (even if, in the case of Knausgård, it is recollected) in attempts to expand the possibilities of the novel. I also agree with the critic Elaine Blair, who points out in her New Yorker review of Rachel Cusk’s novel Outline (which sets out to show the writer’s disdain for the conventional novel and disdain for creating plot and character) that “[t]here are so many ways for a writer to play with autobiography and authorial identity that there is, effectively, no isolated element in fiction that can be called ‘autobiography.’”

When were you first introduced to the works of W.G. Sebald? And how did his innovative approach inspire The Double Life of Liliane?

I read The Emigrants when it was first published [in 1992] and immediately was struck by how the indirect and enigmatic narration gave importance to its subject matter in a new way. From that point on, I read everything else Sebald wrote. I think he gave me permission to blur the lines between fact and fiction and to digress.

How was the writing of this book different from your earlier works?

There are more digressions and the novel feels freer to me. Yet it might appear that I have come full circle since my first novel. Interviewing Matisse, or The Woman Who Died Standing Up, was all about how people talk without listening to each other and how they quickly digress from the subject at hand, but the digressions in The Double Life of Liliane are, I think, different. Or they fulfill a different purpose. Instead of detracting from a subject, they try to add to it. Instead of being meaningless, the digressions are meant to be meaningful. Or so I hope.

Did it take some time to pinpoint the narrative distance?

I knew right away it had to be in the present tense despite the confusion that it might cause.

I love how you brought Paul de Man into the conclusion of the narrative. During one of your classes at Harvard, he said, “In this way, I consider autobiography as an act of self-restoration in which the author recovers the fragments of his or her life into a coherent narrative.” Is this what your intention was with the narrative of this novel?

I think “narrative” is the operative word for me here. As for the “self-restoration,” I think the term is ambiguous. Any restoration implies a change, a repairing, an improvement of sorts. I use my life and the lives of my family, but I don’t expect or plan to arrive at a so-to-speak “truth” about them or about me. In fact, I feel that I write very little about myself; I don’t really recognize myself in the book. Instead, what is important to me is the writing, sentence by sentence, and where those sentences lead me. The inevitable distortions or inventions that occur are part of the process of writing.

I also liked de Man’s quote:

Autobiography occurs when it involves two persons building their identities through reaching each other. This requires a form of substitution — exchanging the writing “I” for the written “I” — and this also implies that both persons are at least as different as they are the same.

Could you expand on this notion?

I began this novel with a much simpler and less literary idea. I wanted to explore the differences in the two very different aspects of Liliane’s life: the time she spent with her father in Europe and the time she spent with her mother in the United States. It was to be a sort of coming-of-age novel. Then, I think I got lucky writing about de Man. His theories gave my novel more scope, more weight, more gravitas. Again, I think this sometimes happens if you can — often unconsciously — make connections (as E.M. Forster famously said) between disparate subjects or events. In my case, the connection between the two lives of the narrator and the written and “real” life of the writer. All this occurred, I think, because Paul de Man was an incredibly important influence in my life. I learned how to read closely, how to intuitively interpret difficult texts, and how to detect the authenticity of language.

Could you discuss the novel’s title and what inspired it?

My inspiration was The Double Life of Véronique, one of my favorite movies by the Polish director with the unpronounceable name — Krzysztof Kieślowski. I have always wished I could write a book that was as beautiful and as mysterious as the film. I wish to still.

Could you talk a bit about your experience of studying with Gordon Lish? How do you think “autofiction” might fall into his philosophy of writing fiction?

I think Gordon was and still is open to all kinds of fiction. The writing and not the form is what I believe matters most to him. Again, I learned a lot in his class. I learned to value myself as a writer and I also learned how to make sentences. Here, verbatim, is one of Gordon’s proclamations:

Your first sentence ordains your world; do not be trivial or petty. Nothing is worse than being trivial. As Joy Williams once said, “The world makes everything taste like chicken.” Own your first sentence, make it yours. Each sentence gives rise to the next sentence, each sentence owes everything to its predecessor. Reveal how elastic a sentence can be. Get into the habit of recasting sentences. Learn how to open up a sentence. Think of yourself as a language-making machine.

What do you hope a young writer takes away after reading this novel? 

Perhaps to give himself or herself permission to write without an agenda and to write intuitively. 

Given your years of experience, is there any other advice that you would give to a young fiction writer?

To write every day.


S. Kirk Walsh’s nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, The New York TimesLos Angeles Review of Books, among many other print and online publications.

LARB Contributor

S. Kirk Walsh’s nonfiction and fiction have appeared in Guernica, The New York Times Book Review, The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, Los Angeles Review of Books, among many other print and online publications. She is a founder of Austin Bat Cave, a writing and tutoring center for kids. Currently, Walsh is at work on a novel. She can be found on twitter: @skirkwalsh.


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!